Of cats and conformity

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by Jeff Fecke • During our marriage, my ex-wife and I peaked at three cats. We divided custody after our divorce; Tucker lives with me, and Cassidy and Fusser stayed with my ex, as she came into the relationship with them.

Jeff Fecke is a freelance writer who lives in Eagan, Minnesota.In addition to his own blog, Blog of the Moderate Left, he also contributes to Alas, a Blog, Minnesota Campaign Report, and AlterNet. Fecke has appeared as a guest on The Today Show, the Alan Colmes radio show, and the Mark Heaney Show. Fecke is divorced, and the father of one really terrific daughter. His debut novel, The Valkyrie’s Tale, is now available.

Cassidy was smart, which as any animal owner can tell you is a bad thing; she got into trouble, managed to find cheese whenever and wherever it existed, and generally lived a feisty life until she died last year at the ripe old age of 18 or so (my ex got her from a shelter, so we’re not exactly sure). Fusser ran away for a month last year, and she’s an old 16. So while she wasn’t sure it was a great idea, about two months ago my ex adopted an orange tabby kitten from a friend of her sister. My ex and my daughter named him Cheddar.

Cheddar was and is an intrepid little cat, quite able to get into trouble, whether walking the railing at the top of the stairs, or climbing the curtains, or harassing Fusser until she gets annoyed. Cheddar’s also quite sweet, willing to put up with my daughter’s smothering of him. Still, it was pretty evident to my ex and I that Cheddar was a pretty typical boy cat — always getting into scrapes, poking his big sister, and generally acting like a maniac.

But Cheddar had his first vet visit last week, and it turns out that Cheddar isn’t a boy at all. She’s a girl. She was from the start, in fact. And the behaviors that we saw as “boyish” were anything but — they were just Cheddar being who she was: a rambunctious, playful, fearless-to-the-point-of-stupidity cat.

Now, understand that my ex-wife and I are both strong feminists. I think my writing speaks for itself; my ex is if anything to my left. Both of us believe that the gender differences we are taught exist are overstated, both believe that a person’s — or cat’s — behaviors are shaped by things other than gender. And yet both of us (and our daughter, too) saw Cheddar’s behavior through the prism of “his” gender. We noted her hyperactivity and willingness to, say, dive into the bowels of a couch with no real exit strategy as “male” behavior. It was risk-taking, courageous, intrepid, and stupid. And while Cheddar was and is a sweet cat (she actually seeks out my daughter to be man-handled), her sweetness seems intensified knowing she’s a girl.

Of course, Cheddar doesn’t know we thought of her as a boy, nor that we now think of her as a girl. Her behavior hasn’t changed. Only our perception of her gender has.

Gender is a social construct. Boys are supposed to behave in one way, girls in another. And because we are taught that, from birth, we see the actions of boys and girls through that prism. Human boys and human girls both can be rambunctious, selfish, feisty and fearless; they can be sweet, kind, passive and nurturing. And yet when we deal with boys, the former behaviors pop out at us; when we deal with girls, the latter do. Why? Because that’s what we’re taught to expect. And even those of us who know better still, in the base of our thinking, expect to see the behaviors we’re told to expect.

It is no wonder that our society loves to divide men and women into separate categories, with one completely different from the other. If you want to see men as aggressive, then you will see aggression, even from men who are aggressive rarely –for all humans are aggressive sometimes. If you want to see women as caring, you will see caring, even from women who aren’t usually caring — for all humans are caring sometimes. And so it is easy to divide men and women according to the behaviors we expect. It is far harder to recognize that those behaviors exist among men or women because they exist among menand women. And so when someone says that men are lazy, people nod — because men, like women, can be lazy. And when someone says that women care about emotion, people nod — because women, like men, care about emotion.

But the truth is that all of us, men and women, are just ourselves. Like my ex-wife’s cat, we are who we are. But like my ex-wife’s cat, people see us through the prisms that society tells them to. And only by being aware of them can we remove the filters, remove the lenses, and see our fellow humans as the creatures they really are, and have been all along.

originally published 12/26/08